Books Teaching & Learning

Review: How to Raise an Adult

Earlier this year a colleague sent me a link to the getting in podcast hosted by Julie Lythcott-Haims. I was so impressed by her refreshing attitude towards the college admissions process that came across heavily in the podcast that I was moved to purchase her book: “How to raise an adult – break free of the overparenting trap and prepare your kid for success”.

Now, it isn’t without irony that I read this book as a parent of a 15 month old girl, but I didn’t initially purchase this book to read as a parent. I bought it as a teacher and college counselor who works with 14-18 year olds and their parents, and one who wanted help to get inside the heads of some parents who at best can be described as helicopter parents and worst who can be described as tiger parents. That being said, reading the book was also helpful as a parent as I became aware of many unhealthy attitudes and thought patterns that have already taken hold in my mind as a parent – I kept thinking: “I do that already!”.

The central premise of the book is that many modern parents are over involved in their children’s lives and do far too much for them. This results in a learned helplessness in young people and a disempowerment of them resulting in an inability to solve life’s problems. Parents have to step back and allow their children to practice a task, fail safely and try again.

Many of the chapters contained examples that resonated with me in terms of the conversations that I have had with parents this year and some of what I read made me question some of the practices that take place in my own school, where we actively encourage parents to become heavily involved with their children’s education. Obviously parents need to be involved and some of this is very very healthy but there is a balance to be struck here and when a parents involvement begins to have detrimental effects on the self-efficacy of the child in question then a boundary has been crossed.

The book is divided into four parts: what we are doing now as parents; why we must stop overparenting; another way of parenting; and daring to parent differently.

There were many specific elements of the book that I particularly enjoyed. In her chapter on children who leave school without basic life skills, Julie provides a checklist of eights tasks that a eighteen year old must be able to do when they leave school:

  1. Be able to talk to strangers (e.g. teachers, landlords, HR managers, co workers etc)
  2. Be able to find their way around a new environment
  3. Be able to manage assignments, work load and deadlines
  4. Be able to contribute to the running of a household
  5. Be able to handle interpersonal problems
  6. Be able to cope with the ups and downs of competition, tough teachers, bosses
  7. Be able to earn and manage money
  8. Be able to take risks

I also liked here strategy for building skills in children:

  1. We do it for you.
  2. We do it with you.
  3. Then we watch you do it.
  4. Then you do it completely independently.

At school many colleagues use the question, “What is in the best interest of the student?” as a guide to situational problem solving, but I often wonder if often-times we sometimes think that the best interest means not letting the students fail or make mistakes.

In school’s we have the chance to design opportunities for students where they have to do things on their own and make a mess of it. Looking at the list above I can think of plenty of times when parents will step up to defend students or make excuses for them, or as a school we don’t design opportunities appropriately to help students to develop these skills.

I certainly feel that in secondary schooling we should be actively working to develop students self-efficacy and independence, and any action that prevents this is stunting the development of the future adult.

Perhaps our Wellbeing programs should also focus on parenting and the effects of overparenting on the development of our future adults. I worry that to some parents, a wellbeing program means that we smooth every graze and wipe away every tear on the metaphorical school playground and that if we don’t immediately step in to support a student in the way they want then we are seen to not be doing our job. Instead at times students need to have the opportunity to solve issues with teachers and other students on their own.

One of the ways to help older students is to do less for them. This doesn’t mean not supporting them – just not doing it for them.

I am tempted to leave the careers week I run unorganised and ask parents to support their children in their internship search but to not find the placement for them. Is there a case for just providing the opportunity and letting the students get on with it under their own steam? Obviously with support in terms of letter writing and C.V. construction from the school.

The book also provides some useful checklists on how to teach life skills age appropriately, tips for teaching children how to think independently, tips on talking to children of different ages as well as for developing a strong work ethic in children.

A well written and articulate book, with a sound argument that is enough to stimulate thinking in many teachers and parents about how they go about their work.

This book got me asking the following:

  • How does the parental involvement in the minutiae of school life impact on the practice of education in our school?
  • How do you successfully balance healthy parental interactions via technology when the school working day is still only eight hours long?
  • How can our schools wellbeing programme address the caging of students by helicopter parents?
  • What exactly is learning if it isn’t memorisation?
  • What is the difference between rigor and load when it comes to homework?
  • How do we generate useful open questions in classrooms and allow the time for real inquiry?
  • How can I help my students learn more with me doing less for them?
  • Is the fact that student don’t read widely or at all evidence that they are self-absorbed?
  • What is my personal purpose?
  • Why do I teach?


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